217 – El Cuádruple Voto del Bodhisattva parte 2: Poner Fin a Todas la Ilusiones
218 – El Cuádruple Voto del Bodhisattva Parte 3: Atravezando las Puertas del Dharma y Alcanzando la Budeidad

I discuss the third and fourth vows of the Fourfold Bodhisattva Vow, about entering all Dharma Gates and embodying the unsurpassed Buddha Way. For some of us, these seem less accessible and relevant than the first two, about freeing all beings and ending all delusions. I talk about what the third and fourth vows mean and why making them is valuable to our practice.

Read/listen to The Fourfold Bodhisattva Vow Part 1: Freeing All Beings or Part 2: Ending All Delusions

 

 

Quicklinks to Article Content:
The Third and Fourth Great Bodhisattva Vows
What Are Dharma Gates?
Entering Dharma Gates
Working with Dharma Gates Over the Course of Our Lives
Attaining the Buddha Way Without Limit

 

The Third and Fourth Great Bodhisattva Vows

To briefly review, the Fourfold Bodhisattva Vow goes as follows:

Beings are numberless; I vow to free them [all].

Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them [all].

Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them [all].

The buddha way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.

As I discussed in the first episode of this series, Episode 216 – The Fourfold Bodhisattva Vow: Freeing All Beings, the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows are deliberately phrased to be impossible. They offer us a direction for our lives that will never come to an end because we never arrive at our final destination. They describe the selfless and determined attitude of the bodhisattva, who never turns away from living beings saying, “Not my problem,” and who never settles into complacency about her own harmful or unskillful behavior saying, “good enough.”

In this episode I am going to focus on the third and fourth bodhisattva vows:

Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them. [all]

The buddha way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.

I can’t be sure, but I think most people who take the Fourfold Bodhisattva Vow think a lot about the first two vows – freeing all beings and ending all delusions – but find the third and fourth vows less accessible or relevant to their practice. After all, you’ve got plenty of work to do just helping to free beings and clean up your karma (as I discussed in the last Episode 217). Entering Dharma Gates and embodying the Buddha Way sound pretty ambitious – perhaps those vows are primarily for the spiritual adepts among us, in case they make significant headway on the first two vows and want to go for the gold?

I think the third and fourth bodhisattva vows are actually very important to our practice, even if we aren’t ambitious spiritual adepts. Let’s consider each vow, one at a time.

 

What Are Dharma Gates?

Dharma GatesFirst, “Dharma Gates are boundless.” What is a Dharma Gate? At its most basic level, this metaphor reflects our experience of encountering some kind of obstacle or limitation, finding our way through it, and then gaining access to something we have never experienced, understood, or manifested before. Any challenge or difficulty we encounter can be a Dharma Gate in the sense that it’s an opportunity to recognize our delusions, to let go of self-concern, and to grow in wisdom, compassion, and skillfulness.

“Skillfulness” is a very important component of our bodhisattva aspiration. It is a Mahayana Buddhist term that refers to the effective manifestation of wisdom and compassion in activity. We may have all the compassion in the world, but if we don’t apply wisdom – and real-life experience – to our actions, we may end up doing more harm than good. Meaning well is essential, as is having the wisdom to see the best way forward, but skillfulness is where the rubber hits the road. It’s where we interact with other beings and with the rest of the world, and we continue to work on our skillfulness all our lives.

Dharma Gates may appear as challenges in our relationships with family, friends, coworkers, and Sangha members. Perhaps we have some difficulty being honest, having an open heart, drawing appropriate boundaries, letting ourselves be seen, truly listening to others, or refraining from comparing ourselves to others. The moral precepts are Dharma Gates when we struggle to stop harmful behaviors like rejecting or cutting off certain aspects of our experience, acting in careless, self-centered ways in order to get what we want by cheating or lying, relying on intoxication to get us through the day, or unleashing anger and feeling justified about it.

Major life challenges that change our sense of ourselves and our lives are significant Dharma Gates, such as losing a job, suffering financially, health problems, disability, pain and loss of ability associated with aging, or loss of a loved one. Dharma Gates manifest as we try to figure out how we fit in the wider world and what our responsibilities are: How should we respond to the deterioration of democracy in our country? To obscene inequities in terms of wealth and physical well-being? To the accelerating destruction caused by global heating and humanity’s unwillingness to offer a commensurate response?

Small things that require us to grow and learn and explore new aspects of ourselves can be Dharma Gates as well, like learning to play a musical instrument or a sport, dog training, or volunteering in your community.

 

Entering Dharma Gates

An aspiring bodhisattva turns toward any Dharma Gate they encounter with curiosity, willingness, and determination. Zen promises two things about any Dharma Gate:

  1. There is a way through
  2. There is a reward for passing through – greater wisdom, compassion, skillfulness, and/or freedom. It will be worth passing through.

In some senses, the term “Dharma Gate” is synonymous with what I call a “natural koan” (see my podcast episode on natural koans, 183 – Natural Koans: Engaging Our Limitations as Dharma Gates). When we encounter some kind of obstacle or limitation, we engage it with attention and patience. We’re not trying to break through the Dharma Gate with our willful effort. That generally doesn’t work and only causes more problems. However, we also don’t walk away from the gate. We keep our eye on it and hold the intention of finding our way through it, looking for opportunities to understand what it’s about and how best to relate to it.

What do we mean by finding our “way through” a Dharma Gate? This doesn’t mean that, through our spiritual practice, through our willful effort, we can fix everything in the world or in our lives – that every challenge we encounter can be resolved through our spiritual practice. Some difficult relationships will remain difficult. Our wisdom, compassion, and skillfulness will be limited to at least some extent until we attain complete buddhahood – if complete buddhahood is even possible. But, even if the other side of a Dharma Gate isn’t the perfect resolution we might secretly hope for, there is always a benefit of some kind from passing through it. We always learn something. Some greater peace and compassion is possible.

The bodhisattva vow says, “Dharma Gates are boundless.” This means they are infinite in number, but also without fixed boundaries. Each gate is related to all the other gates, and the process of passing through them is rarely a single moment we can look back at and define clearly. Most change and learning happen gradually, so even if there’s an “Aha!” moment, it’s the culmination of years of practice. In addition, most of the time we realize, after having passed through a gate, that the obstacle or limitation was something created by our own minds. Therefore, entering a Dharma Gate usually involves realizing there was no gate to begin with. This is why there’s a famous collection of koans called “The Gateless Gate.”

 

Working with Dharma Gates Over the Course of Our Lives

It can be challenging to keep working with our Dharma Gates when there is no obvious “solution,” or when nothing feels resolved for a long time. Some challenges in our lives – like chronic health conditions or a troubled relationship – continue even after we’ve learned from them or had a significant positive shift in how we relate to them. Then we may long for a different Dharma Gate, thank you very much! For example, I had a dear Dharma sister who struggled with severe rheumatoid arthritis for over 20 years. Her ability to appreciate each day of her life and resist falling into complete despair or depression was a triumph… but she said to me, only partly joking, “I sure would like a different koan now. I’ve learned everything I want to from this!” Our toughest Dharma Gates are with us all of our lives and we may never feel like we’ve “entered them” once and for all, but our bodhisattva vow is to keep trying.

It’s important to remember we don’t have to feel grateful for truly painful Dharma Gates. Zen practice is about facing reality, and part of reality is our honest feelings, including sadness, grief, frustration, anger, or despair. Trying to replace our negative feelings with positive ones isn’t necessary, and usually isn’t helpful in the long term. Patience with ourselves and our process is necessary. Struggling with a Dharma Gate or feeling negative about it instead of celebrating it as an “opportunity” is not a moral failing, it’s human nature. What makes it all bodhisattva practice is not giving up, not turning away from the Dharma Gate saying, “I don’t care about the greater wisdom, compassion, and skillfulness on the other side of this obstacle or limitation.”

It’s possible to get neurotic about trying to achieve any one of the bodhisattva vows – to worry ourselves to death about saving others, or to try to put end to every one of our delusions and harmful behaviors, or to obsess about what we don’t yet understand or aren’t yet able to do. Ideally, the bodhisattva vows push us into a fruitful, dynamic place where we align our lives with their beautiful, profound ideals as best we can, awakening a sincere desire within us to move closer to them, but where we let go of trying to measure our progress.

I see the vow about entering all Dharma Gates as a life-affirming vow about being grateful for the opportunity of human life and fulfilling our full potential as human beings. You might look at ending all delusions as fulfilling the pre-Mahayana ideal of cleaning up your karma in this life so you can get free of the cycle of rebirth, the goal of early Buddhism I discussed in the last episode. In the traditional worldview of karma and rebirth, even positive, creative actions generated karma – it was just good karma, which led to a fortunate rebirth. The highest spiritual ideal was to stop generating any karma at all and avoid rebirth entirely. Others may disagree with me, but I think the vow the enter all Dharma Gates encourages us to keep learning, growing, becoming more skillful and beneficial. After all, the bodhisattva doesn’t mind being reborn in the world in order to keep working on his or her vows.

 

Attaining the Buddha Way Without Limit

The final vow is the culmination of the other three vows and of practice itself: The Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it. Other translations say we vow to become it, attain it, or accomplish it.

This is quite the vow. Do most of us even realize what we’re saying? We’re saying we vow to attain buddhahood! Even though, as this vow states – in keeping with the rest of the vows – that this is impossible. The translation of this vow used at Zen Mountain Monastery is, “The Buddha Way is unattainable; I vow to attain it.”[i] Another translation, used by the Village Zendo, says, “The Buddha’s Path is endless, I vow to follow it to its very end.”[ii] The Japanese word translated as “unsurpassed” is MUJO; MU is a negative prefix meaning without, no, or free from, and JO means “top” or “higher.” MUJO, then, means without anything higher, or without limit. [iii] The word translated as “embody” or “attain” is also pronounced JO (a different character) which can mean to become, reach, attain, or turn into. So, we’re vowing to reach the end of a path that is without limit.

As discussed already, the Mahayana ideal of Buddhahood isn’t just about ending delusions and minimizing the harm you do in the world. It’s not even limited to remaining in the world as a bodhisattva to do your part, responding to the need that appears in front of you. A Buddha goes beyond this, becoming a masterful teacher of other beings, skillfully leading them to their own awakening. This is what we’re promising. The Buddha Way, the path of the Dharma, never ends. Our goal is to realize and manifest the exquisite and perfect wisdom, compassion, and skillfulness of a Buddha, whether or not we believe Buddhas exist or think attaining perfection is possible.

Are you this ambitious? It seems kind of ridiculous from an ordinary point of view. Perhaps those of us taking this fourth bodhisattva vow are either deluded, or arrogant, or hopelessly idealistic. Why might making this vow be important?

If we don’t make this vow, and try to fulfill this vow, we are likely to slow down or stop part way along the path of practice. When our acute suffering is relieved, when we’re not struggling with life’s challenges, we are liable to conclude “not my problem” and “good enough.” Although Dharma Gates remain unopened, our practice may languish, or at least our passion and determination will wane, and we’ll simply enjoy life’s pleasures as long as they last. There’s nothing inherently wrong or sinful about this, but from the Buddhist point of view it’s like when Dorothy and her friends fall asleep in the field of poppies on the way to visit the wizard in the story “The Wizard of Oz.” They forget their journey. They are happy enough dozing among the beautiful flowers, but if they had remained there, they would never have experienced their respective transformations, and Dorothy never would have returned home.

It’s tricky because before we know the rewards of deep and long-term practice, we don’t know what we’re missing. In our self-centered view, a pleasant life is good enough. We inoculate ourselves against complacency by making the fourfold bodhisattva vow.

 


Endnotes

[i] https://zmm.org/teachings-and-training/four-bodhisattva-vows/

[ii] https://terebess.hu/zen/szoto/vows.html and https://www.lionsroar.com/i-vow/

[iii] https://villagezendo.org/wp-content/pdfs/FourVowsVZ-ZCLA.pdf

 

Picture Credit

Image by Tom from Pixabay

 

217 – El Cuádruple Voto del Bodhisattva parte 2: Poner Fin a Todas la Ilusiones
218 – El Cuádruple Voto del Bodhisattva Parte 3: Atravezando las Puertas del Dharma y Alcanzando la Budeidad
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